The Laos Dining Experience

By: sachilefever on July 6, 2006 - 2:05am

Lying between Thailand and Cambodia on our itinerary, Laos may have a disadvantage in being compared to seemingly richer countries. However, we were impressed with Laos overall – it was full of scenic beauty and the traveling was easier than we expected. between Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. While we enjoyed the day trips to waterfalls and river rafting, the day’s end would bring a search for dinner in the towns.

As we walked by each restaurant and café, staff would inevitably not smile, but would instead stare to see if we chose one of their tables for a meal. Once we sat down, a menu was silently dropped in front of us and the server stood, still without a smile, staring to hear a request.

We understand that cultural cues can be very different between neighboring countries and we assume that restaurant staff in general didn’t feel we were an imposition on their evening, but after coming from Thailand – the Land of Smiles – we had to remind ourselves not to feel rushed to order and eat.  The service was good and the Lao we met were kind and courteous, but often lacked the appearance of smiling friendliness.

In other Asian countries, I hadn’t felt that need to fall back on Western food, but the local Lao dishes for me seemed to lack much flavor with the exception of straight chilli peppers. We tried more than a few stir fried dishes, curries, spring rolls, meat and sticky rice on sticks, and a few handfuls of market favorites wrapped in banana leaves. It wasn’t nearly as delicious as Thai versions.  Even the dipping sauces seemed watery and lacked the salty or sweet richness in flavor the spring rolls needed, though fresh mint added to the rolls were a nice touch. I can see why, at least for foreigners, there were many more cooking schools available for Thai cuisine.

In Vientiane, we ate well with French and Italian cuisine mixed in with a few Lao meals. It was a little embarrassing as we perceived our choices as those of “weak” travellers, but we greatly anticipated European food that wasn’t Spaghetti in tomato sauce. So, in the end, Vientiane’s lamb shank and caviar-salmon ravioli meals with smiling staff (3 course meals for 2 under US$10-12) were my favorites.

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Laid Low

By: leelefever on July 3, 2006 - 1:59am

After India, even places known for unsanitary conditions seem all the more worry-free.  This may have been the case with Laos, which was much nicer than I expected, but lacks infrastructure nonetheless.  We jettisoned the hand sanitizing lotion in Thailand/Japan and did not look back. Perhaps we should have as we've both been laid low by minor ailments lately.  Just a little head cold and some digestive troubles to welcome us to Cambodia.

I'm hoping Sachi will have some words for you about Laos soon, but in the mean time, I'd like to talk about currency.  First of all, I didn't realize until we were already there that Laos (or the People's Democratic Republic of Laos) is a communist country with an almost free-market enconomy (a bit like China).  Anyway, much like Cambodia, multiple currencies can be used.  The Lao "kip" is joined with the US Dollar and the Thai Baht.  There are 10,000 kip for each American dollar, making for wallet-bulging stacks of change. 

Officially, the Lao government says that the Kip is the only and required currency.  However, Lao Airlines, the government-owned carrier will only accept payment in US dollars.  Such is the state of affairs in Laos.

Here in Cambodia, the defacto currency is the US Dollar ($1 to about 4000r).  The Cambodian Riel is often given for change to the dollar, but at a grocery store today I noticed a cash register that looked just as it would at home- stocked with US money. I used 10 minutes (US$.20) of Internet time today, payed with a one dollar bill and received 8 bills of change back in the Cambodian Riel.  Wallet bulging.

I fulfilled a couple of my trip-long goals today by visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Seng Prinson here in Phnom Penh, both big parts of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1975-1979.  I'll have a lot to say about that soon.

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Go To Vang Vieng, Laos for the Scenery

By: leelefever on June 28, 2006 - 10:49pm

Vang Vieng is one of the more beautiful places we've been on the trip, but it is a bit hard to get to and the town is nothing special.  It's 5 hours south of Luang Prabang and the best way to make the trip is via minibus (US$9 per person) on the infamous route 13, known for banditry.

Sachi, me and 13 new "friends" made the trip, which offered us roadside views of 13 year-olds with kalashinikov rifles, a bus with it's roof caved-in from a hillside roll-over accident and an amazing loss of personal space.  We made it safely and we now have more ammunition for our unstoppable bravado.

 Vang Vieng is sadly too much like Khao San Road in Bangkok - backpacker heaven.  In fact, we heard about it before coming and then saw it with our own eyes- restaurants packed with people glued to giant TVs watching continuous episodes of "Friends" and the "The Simpsons".  

Alas, we stayed away from the town and took in the gorgeous mountain scenery.  The mountains lining the Nam Song river beside the town are limestone "karsts" which jut out of the ground amazingly abruptly, making for a magestic view from the town and river.

If you go to Vang Vieng, a must-do is a tube ride down the Nam Song (thanks JJ!).  It costs less than a dollar, takes 3 hours and offers lots to do.  In fact, the river is lined with bars and "fun parks" for the tubers.  You'll hear a constant chorus of "Beer Lao! Beer Lao! Beer Lao!"


 But the prize is really the karsts (and caves contained therein), which to me have an only-in-asia feel...



Laos is a beautiful and mostly untouched place and I hope that it can stay that way. 

River Rafting near Luang Prabang Laos

By: leelefever on June 26, 2006 - 11:04pm

Like so many of the things we do, the journey is so much better than the destination.  This was certainly the case when we decided to go river rafting in Laos.  We didn’t expect real white water and white water was not what we got.  What we did experience were some authentic moments with Lao people on the banks of the Nam Ou river.

The day began with the precarious stacking of various river floating paraphernalia on top of an open air truck called a song tao (phonetic spelling) and meeting two of the more unfriendly travelers we’ve met thus far.  Funny thing, their noses seemed to be permanently lifted into the air to such a degree that they found it unnecessary to interact with the likes of us. We could only chuckle in our bewilderment.

It was really more like river floating or river paddling than river rafting, I’d say.  The rapids were surely class 1 and we spent much of the time paddling through nearly stagnant yoo-hoo colored water.  In fact, on a couple of occasions, our trusty guides Pon and Jon napped (as is apparently customary in SE Asia).  All the clothes below are for protection from the sun.

The fun began when we stopped to have lunch at a small 300 person village.  As we pulled up on the banks of the river, the kids from the village came down to greet us.  For the next hour or so we all played in the river and my camera, or the images it produced, was often the center of attention. They laughed so hard when they saw the picture below.

 The guides let them take the boat out in the river and before long they started using it as a diving board.

The guides gave them a little help in the air too.

The girls from the village were a bit more reserved.

We got thankfully separated from the other group and in our time waiting for them, Jon saw his cousin on the river and they invited us to the shore for a fish fry. 


We pulled up on the banks as his family and friends proceeded to make a fire, set up a table and serve a freshly caught meal of river fish, stewed vegetables, pumpkin seeds, sticky rice and plenty of “lao-lao” or homemade Lao Whiskey.  The whiskey is akin to moonshine, but made from sticky rice.  They made us feel right at home.

Though the rafting itself wasn’t that exciting, the scenery was amazing and we didn’t need to remind ourselves that we’re floating down a river somewhere in the middle of Laos – so far from home. 

Looking around, it really felt like something from a movie with village fisherman, kids playing on the beach and not a speck of modern civilization in sight.  It was surely some of the best Laos can offer.


Luang Prabang, Laos

By: leelefever on June 26, 2006 - 10:50pm

We didn’t know what to expect from Laos.  We had heard that it is laid back, poor and without a lot of the modern conveniences of home.  What we didn’t expect was the beauty and ease of Luang Prabang, it’s second largest city.

Loas, like it’s brothers in SE Asia, is a former French colony.  Set at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is a jewel of a town with as much French colonial style as traditional Laotian charm.  In fact, the whole place is filled with contrast and contradiction.  Perfectly laid brick thoroughfares wind through traditional bamboo, thatch roofed homes.  Fine European style restaurants serve patrons beside food stalls of traditional Laotian food.  The town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, with good reason.

With a number of wats (temples) it is nearly impossible to move around without seeing young monks.  Our guesthouse is directly across the street from a wat and every morning at 4am a drum is beaten rhythmically for about 2 minutes. The first time I heard it I was a bit upset that we chose a place with such an annoyance.  After hearing it a couple of times, it has me rapt and I now look forward to hearing it each morning.

The mighty Mekong


A plumeria on the way up Mount Phousi Hill in the middle of the city...

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